Illinois defeats No. 21 Winthrop Saturday, improves to 2-1 on season

By Erik Hall

The Illinois baseball team beat a ranked opponent for the first time in two years with Saturday’s win at No. 21 Winthrop. The Illini beat the Eagles 7-6 as senior pitcher Jimmy Conroy earned the team’s first win of the season.

“We knew we were good and that just shows that we are,” said junior outfielder Ryan Rogowski. “It was a great win for us.”

The Illini completed the N.I.A. Shootout with a 2-1 record. Illinois lost the season opener Friday to Kent State 6-5. Illinois carried the momentum from Saturday’s win as they crushed Wagner 14-1.

“I think we are a much better ballclub than a year ago offensively, defensively and on the mound,” said Illinois head coach Itch Jones.

Illinois displayed their improved play by committing only one error during the weekend’s 27 innings. In 2004, the Illini averaged an error every 6.5 innings.

The offense popped for the orange and blue as they bashed six home runs during the three games. It took until game No. 13 before the Illini hit their sixth home run last season.

“The home runs we hit were well hit,” Jones said. “I don’t think they were swinging for home runs. They took good swings and hit the ball well.”

Illinois hit three of their home runs against Winthrop. Seniors Dusty Bensko and Drew Davidson and junior catcher Chris Robinson hit home runs against Winthrop.

But the winning run against Winthrop did not come from a hit over the outfield fence. Rogowski scored the winning run after he stole third base in the top of the ninth inning. He crossed home after Winthrop’s catcher threw the ball into left field.

“I was getting a big lead and (Chad) Frk was up to bat,” Rogowski said. “He fouled one off and coach Jones said, ‘If you can take it, take it.’ I got a big jump and I just knew I was going to be safe, and then the guy threw it away.”

The Illinois offense kept hitting the ball hard Sunday with a win by 13 runs against Wagner. Nine Illinois batters recorded a hit Sunday with Davidson and Frk each hitting a home run.

But the weekend’s best performance might have come from junior pitcher Brian Blomquist. Blomquist made his first start since May 18, 2003. Blomquist missed the entire 2004 season because of Tommy John surgery.

He pitched six shutout innings Sunday and allowed only three hits – two singles and a double. Blomquist walked just one batter and struck out six.

“I’ve been ready for this for a year and a half,” Blomquist said. “Right when the game started, I knew I was hitting my spots well. I was really ready for this.”

Despite closing the weekend with success, the Illini had a slow start Friday against Kent State. The first three batters in the game for Kent State came around and scored.

The Illini went in front 5-4, but Illinois had only one hit during the final 4.2 innings. The one hit was a bunt single by senior shortstop Toby Gardenhire.

Kent State and Illinois play later this season on March 20 in Bradenton, Fla.

“I was really impressed with all our players this weekend,” Jones said. “They have to understand that this is one time. You have to do it day in and day out, all year long.

“They need to continue to pitch to good locations and take each hitter seriously. The hitters have to take every at-bat serious. Defensively, when the ball is hit to you, it is the most important hit of the day. We just got to concentrate on one pitch at a time and we’ll be OK.”